For many photographers the ethereal Barn Owl is perhaps one of the most sought-after species that frequents the English countryside. With its heart shaped face and buff coloured back; it’s a creature of ‘ghost like’ appearance that enchants and beguiles us as it sees through the shadows hunting across open ground.
A fragile existence
Barn owls are secretive creatures at the best of times and live a precarious existence subject to the vagaries of the weather and the troubling loss of local habitat. Focussed conservation has undoubtedly helped and led to a promising increase in numbers across areas in the UK; and the county of Suffolk where I live is no exception.
Barn Owls are instinctively drawn to rough, uncultivated fields or pasture and will nest within farm buildings, garages or barns, many of which will be derelict from lack of use. They’re very territorial and possess an intimate knowledge of their home range; sweeping across the fields from established roosts that overlook favoured hunting areas.
For good reason they are a protected species as adult birds and especially their young are very prone to disturbance. In this regard time is well spent undertaking a little research before you set out and rough it in the field in search of this silent hunter.
Of course, we all strive to capture that jaw dropping encounter, immersed within the prism of your viewfinder, waiting in eager anticipation as your subject approaches; but the simple fact is the welfare of this most remarkable owl should always come first.
A sustainable balance
It’s not uncommon to see the same owl raising their young and quartering familiar fields along the margins as the years pass by. They’re naturally inclined to remain at the same site throughout their lives which makes nesting areas and surrounding habitat vulnerable to the whims of developers together with the adoption of more intensive farming techniques.
Whilst the situation has improved, thanks in part to local conservation efforts and heightened awareness; the Barn Owl’s plight is nonetheless far from secure and local sustainability for the immediate future at least, remains in the balance.
An irreversible loss
A case in point was when I recently visited one of my favoured Barn Owl haunts close to home. What remained of a once proud old barn was now a forlorn pile of timber, pulled down to make way for yet another development. The handwritten sign loosely tied against the metal railings surrounding this sorry site boldly proclaimed, “Barn Owl Lodge”. Well, there certainly used to be an owl that lived here I thought… but not anymore. It’s perhaps a sad indictment of our fragile relationship with nature in pursuit of what some call progress and others an irreversible loss.
If an established site is lost however, it’s rare for an owl to return; and it’s no coincidence this can have an impact on the wider population living locally.
There’s little doubt; the more time you invest understanding the patterns and behaviour of your subject the greater the reward. The Barn Owl is no exception and with the early onset of March last year there were several active birds in and around the Lavenham fields only a short walk from home.
Typically Barn Owls need to feed around four or five times a night to sustain their weight and energy levels.
During the breeding season this will often rise threefold with a pair of hungry owlets to placate so it’s no coincidence they hunt throughout the day to supplement their diet.
As the days draw out with the early onset of Spring sightings become more frequent and for the most part predictable, particularly at dawn and dusk. They’ll often hunt in short bursts of no more than an hour; and it's not unusual at daybreak to see an Owl perched on a fencepost or gate waiting patiently for the moment to strike. They’ll often use this technique to conserve energy as despite having poor eyesight they possess an acute sense of hearing and are well equipped to locate their prey by virtue of sound alone.
A hint of drama
I’ve often thought churchyards provide a veritable oasis for wildlife and for the past few years was an established hunting area for one particular owl I had the privilege to observe. It was a magical location somewhat reminiscent of a ‘Brothers Grimm’ fairy-tale; especially at sunrise when the light was low, diffuse and awash with colour.
Often, I would find myself just watching in silence as this ghostly apparition seemed to float between the gravestones in search of its prey. Perhaps this underlies my enduring fascination with this most remarkable owl as moments like this forever resonate in the mind.
And so we hope
It’s been a particularly wet winter as we now reflect upon the days to come with the onset of Spring. It’s certainly too early to tell what toll the cold rains may have taken on the Lavenham owls found close to home.
I hope it will be another good year as there is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature as it changes with the seasons.
Not least of which is the arrival of this most beguiling yet fragile owl as it sweeps across rough pasture for us all to wonder and behold.